Saturday, November 18, 2017


La Mancha where saffron is grown.

In La Mancha, the upland plateau region of central Spain, early November is the season for harvesting saffron flowers. Saffron, the spice, consists of the dried stigmas of a small, mauve-colored, autumn-blooming crocus. The plant originated in the Middle East and was introduced into Spain by the Moors in the ninth century. Saffron became the flavor of status in medieval cuisine. It has been grown in Spain’s La Mancha region ever since.

Autumn-blooming saffron crocuses.

The three orange-gold stigmas of each flower are extracted by hand.

Saffron, of course, is essential to real paella. It also goes into other rice dishes and some stews such as gallina en pepitoria, chicken braised in almond-saffron sauce. I’m making a Manchegan rice dish that combines the two—stewed chicken and rice. This is caldoso or "soupy" rice, not dry like paella.

Golden rice with chicken stewed in almond sauce.

This is a real farmhouse dish, where a free-range barnyard fowl might be used. Use a smaller “fryer” (3 ½ pounds) instead. It cooks in water or stock until completely tender before the rice is added.

Vegetables can be included—green beans or artichokes being the most common. I’ve added sliced butternut squash.

To extract all the flavor and color from saffron, first crush the wispy threads in a mortar. Place the saffron in a cup and pour over hot liquid. Let the saffron infuse at least 5 minutes and up to 30 minutes.

Use Spanish “round,” medium-grain, paella rice for this dish, preferably the variety called Bomba. Bomba rice is preferred for caldoso dishes as it doesn’t “flower” when cooked with lots of liquid.

I started with a whole chicken, cut into joints. With the breast cut into four, this made eight serving pieces. I separated out the bony back, neck and wings and used them to make a light stock. You can use store-bought stock or just plain water. If using water, be sure to add plenty of salt to taste.

The chicken liver gets fried and mashed up with almonds and garlic to thicken the cooking liquid slightly. If you don’t have a liver (or prefer to put it on toast and eat it straight up), fry a slice of bread to mash.

How soupy is soupy rice? You’ll need at least four times the volume of liquid to rice, i.e., 2 cups rice and 8 cups water or stock. You will be surprised how much liquid the rice absorbs in the five minutes settling period after you remove it from the heat. So a total of 9 or 10 cups liquid is better if you’re aiming for “soupy.”

Vegetables can be included--here, butternut squash and green beans.

(Free-Range) Chicken with Soupy Rice
Pollo de Corral con Arroz Caldoso

Serves 6

Bomba variety is best for caldoso rice.
2- 2 ½ pounds chicken pieces
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 chicken liver, cut in 3 or 4 pieces, or 1 slice bread, crusts removed
¼ cup blanched and skinned almonds
6 cloves garlic
½ cup chopped onion
½ cup grated tomato pulp
½ teaspoon saffron threads
1 clove
¼ cup hot water
1 tablespoon chopped parsley plus additional for garnish
¼ cup white wine
2 bay leaves
9-10 cups water or chicken stock (or a combination)
2 cups medium-grain rice, preferably Bomba variety
Sliced butternut squash (optional)
Cut-up green beans (optional)

Sprinkle the chicken with salt, pepper and thyme and allow it to come to room temperature.

Heat the oil in a large pan or cazuela. Fry the chicken liver (or bread), almonds and 2 whole cloves of the garlic until they are lightly browned. Remove and reserve. Set a few toasted almonds aside to garnish the finished dish.

Add the chicken pieces to the pan and brown them on medium-high heat, 10-12 minutes. Remove.

Chop 2 cloves of the remaining garlic and add to the pan with the chopped onion. Sauté several minutes, then add the tomato pulp. Continue frying until tomato cooks up somewhat.

Meanwhile, crush the saffron and clove in a mortar. Place the spices in a small bowl and add the ¼ cup hot water. Allow the saffron to infuse 5 minutes.

Place the chicken liver, almonds, fried garlic and 2 cloves of raw garlic  in a blender with the wine. Blend to make a smooth paste.

Stir the paste into the pan. Add the saffron-clove mixture and bay leaves. Add 4 cups of the water or chicken stock. If using water, add 1 teaspoon of salt. Chicken stock may not need additional salt.

Return the chicken pieces to the pan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer the chicken, uncovered, turning it once or twice, until tender, about 40 minutes if you started with a 3-pound “fryer,” longer for a larger, free-range chicken.

Add about 5 cups additional water or stock to the pan. Add more salt to taste. Bring to a boil and stir in the rice. Add the pieces of squash and beans, if using. Cook, uncovered, on high for 5 minutes. Reduce heat so liquid bubbles gently. Cook 10 minutes longer and remove the pan from the heat. Allow the chicken and rice to set for 5 minutes before serving. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and the reserved toasted almonds.

Caldoso rice is "spoon food." Chicken should be falling-off-the-bones tender.

La Mancha, processing saffron by hand.

More recipes with saffron:

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